My recent climb up Traprain Law, in East Lothian, Scotland was as much an ascent into the Scottish hills, as a journey into a mental place for recollection. Previous trips when sheep would bleat among the folds of grasses and the odour of summer spent in the air, or that trip in the rain of an overcast day, amongst the familar panting of breathing, where recalled in my mind. Situated near the house where I had spent most my childhood, such a climb that seemed to evolve in tempo of hours, passed in the brevity of minutes in the mental sensibilities of a twenty-one year old destined to seemingly speed up his own conceptions of time passing. The monuments of stones that lie at the summit of these hills, serve as a reminder to time passing and a memorial to both geological and human time. People circling these stones in their small groups, or as single travellers, make paths around these monuments marking temporality around sculptures that are both long lasting marks of human activity and also will survive them.
My parents and I would walk through the long grass of summer, that when green permeated the hills with a kind of consolation and wonder. In this constellation of enamoured green we would walk and I aged nine would run behind my mother and father, enrapt both by the air and the light. The lines we made in the grasses where fugitive scars upon the tranquility of this landscape and where there existed the possibility that I could partially own it; then it felt as if I knew this landscape and had become communal with the veracity of the sounds of the animals and the essences of their smell. Aged nine, the climb I experienced seemed to last for the same time I would equate to half a day of my present life, it was a time experienced intuitively, without presumption or analysis, but only in the process of bathing in it, of succumbing to the run up the hill and the sweet air, with colours that are more vibrant than now.
I coloured these memories with the visions of a kind of naive consciousness, enamoured with acceptance and peace exalted in the run I took up the steep side of the hill towards rocks that I could tempt to climb, past backpackers verging carefully up the slope in measured pace. Then as I would admire the progress of this ascent, I would see the mound of rocks silhouetted against the skyline of Traprain Law, and I would recognise not only that I was nearing the summit of this hill, but also I would recognise a kind of transformation to the landscape, or the landscape of my mind. Bearing witness now, not to the natural, unadulterated landscape, but to a place marked by human activity. Upon my observation of this outcrop of human endeavour at the summit, my thoughts of the limitless ascent, the free flowing consciousness of the run, and the childhood energy of it where unconsciously dismantled. As if my sculpture of freedom had suddenly been shattered into pieces.
When I glanced upon the summit, when I saw an end to the climb and a place for conclusion, the desire to reach it was lost; I would slowly and reluctantly drag myself to the top, making the last few steps with a kind of vanity and an urge to return again to the nature and the landscape that was not marked by the consummation of the land and the human hand upon it. Upon the elevation of the hill you can see the distant landscape of Scotland plough down before you, among grey clouds hanging, as if waiting for a moment to erupt in courage, and to decimate peace with the new tempting markings of rain.
Sometimes in the resting places of the circle of stones I would cower, more relieved at the strength of the wind that seemed to engulf but also wrap me in a kind of agile clothing, which would subside to the wrappings of stones shielding me from its onslaught.
Sometimes in the resting places of the circle of stones I would cower, more relieved at the strength of the wind that seemed to engulf but also wrap me in a kind of agile clothing, which would subside to the wrappings of stones shielding me from its onslaught. The sound of the wind would die away and be consoled by arid silence that seemed to hit my ears with a peculiar percussive hush; the gentle rattle of the rocks now lower and darker in tone. When you sit inside the cocoon of the rocks, you seem guarded as if in a new kind of womb, such a place is of both comfort and entrapment; in fact it is as if the luxury of stones pressing into your body, both reminds you of living, but also of being immobile in this cocoon. It is perhaps like being under anaesthetic, you cannot move and are no longer wrenched apart, limbs sometimes flailing by the arms of the wind, which although they are wrestling you, seemed to also be pushing you out into the world, pushing you into the cry of living. In the oppressive comfort of stones, little is ignited, save for a sense of claustrophobia, a passive tranquility, a place for thought. Yet it is in this interior place for the human mind, that there seems a kind of reluctance to step out of the bed of rocks, that willingly wraps you in its geological garment; shielding you as you are protected from the onslaught of the world – in its cruelty and suffering but also its light. In the crouched position your body is a paradoxical epitome for both protection and vulnerability; the outside world cannot touch you, but your body and mind now limitless are imprisoned, interred in the fabric of the rocks surrounding your every thought, breath and emotion, where they guard you from potential, life and the dexterity of that outer world, that world which wounds but also gives.
Stepping from the cocoon of this entombed world is a relief, as you face the open wind again and hearing the bleat of lambs, like children of the world, living not in the mind’s vision, but in the vision of physicality – the senses, the feeling of grass caressing the limbs that wade through grass, as if wading through a sea, or the sting of nettles and bracken that bites you with the feeling that you are alive, that you are entrapped in this world of feeling, that is not only realised in the bite of thoughts, but the bite of the air and the taste of that summer that lingers viscerally in a veracity of vision that sometimes lies in its kindness.
Leaving behind the monuments of stones, arranged by the hands of former travellers, descendants of the Traprain ascent; where placed momentarily upon the summit in the materiality of physical rock, their passages where remembered even in the air, I encountered even in the descent. Leaving the rocks behind I thought that I could find new monuments. The light was now behind our backs, as the sun slowly sank behind the horizon, perhaps like molten lead, and we would clamber down the mountain now, ungainly but fresh and new in this moment. The sunlight cast us as shadows, and for seconds we became immaterial monuments infused with energy like monuments to shadows.
Text and images by Ad Howells.
In August 2013 I visited Venice, Italy for a trip to the Venice Biennale art exhibition and I captured this image looking onto the Venetian skyline. The image became a starting point for a photographic series entitled: Watching the light. In Watching the light I am interested in exploring Venice as a city of the light; initiated from the idea of a series exploring a theme of people watching and contemplating the gleaming water surface of the Venetian lagoon. As I was situated in this place all the time I was contemplating what they might have been thinking while they looked upon this otherworldly city.
The medium of light unites and disunites moments, times and places creating a trajectory of thoughts, observations and transformations both in the beholder and in the beheld.
I am interested in the concept of the two cities that exist in this watery metropolis, one as the reality of the real world, and the other city below that exists solely in reflections. This reflected city forms another world for contemplation. During my visit I recognised light in its many incarnations – refracted light manifested in water, light consoled upon faces, light transformed, warped and bent in mirrors, or in the effects of sunlight that erode the material of stone on ancient sculptures. As light is the primary medium of photography, its substance is of great value to this essay.
Light consoles us and creates us; as people or the apparatus of the camera observe it, it touches us configuring our sensibilities, predispositions, feelings and emotions. I think these images could posit an idea that light forms kind of trajectory between people, places and emotions in enacted photons. When capturing the photographs I was interested in the fascination people had in this simple act of sitting beside the lagoon and using the beauty of that landscape as an exterior facade to their interior thoughts. In the place of exclusion manifested by these images, a place where thoughts, predetermined actions and substance are largely lost to the subtlety of body language and hidden faces, their language can be only imagined through the audience’s conception of them. The water and the light of the sky become synonymous with interior thoughts, in an ascribing and externalising process.
As the light upon the water of the Venetian lagoon refracts the exterior landscape of the city’s buildings, creating a fragmentation of a predisposition of what buildings look like, the water can also become a place for a projection for our interior world, and it is in this way that I want to depict the idea of watching the light.
When I visited the Giardini gardens in Venice, which during the Biennalle houses hundreds of exhibitions, I came across a building covered in mirrors. Like the water this mirrored surface, displays the refracted physical properties of light as a means to transform the body and the real world, transfiguring an altered depiction of reality. In images 6 and 7 children and their parents are seen walking though a transformed and transforming space that is as much visceral and subjectively interior as part of the natural real landscape. While the earlier images depict the division between the borders of habitable land and adverse sea, the following images in some way transfuse the vehicle of the body with space, creating a proximity between the two through the illusory ability of light.
The physical illusions found in mirrored surfaces indicate and encounter between these two dialectical opposing worlds. Photons of light carry messages forming a trajectory between places and times; this is in part what this series conveys, the series of images create links between moments and concepts.
It is not only living bodies of people that are defined and embodied by the subjection of light; the statues that watch over visitors to the gardens of the Biennale in the Giardini might stand longer than the humans that surround them, but their fugitive nature is realised in the erosion subject in the statues faces and the stone cloth of their garments. The erosion of sunlight shapes skin and stone and is captured briefly in the emulsion of film negative of the digital sensor of a camera. Like the people beside the lagoon these statues continue to watch the light as it marks them. While light crafts the photographic image itself, it also crafts and shapes the world around us, as much as light marks moments it also marks the surface of things.
When we look up at starlight or moonlight, we see delayed light observing a 1.3 second delay in the light we observe from the moon and a 8.3 second delay in sunlight. This observed time traversal is both part the process of astronomical observation and the act of photography to miraculously distill a moment in time. As statues erode and skin decomposes, the material of photography attempts to create an immortality of these finite elements. The medium of light unites and disunites moments, times and places creating a trajectory of thoughts, observations and transformations both in the beholder and in the beheld.
Watching the light series.
Captured in Venice, Italy. Ad Howells, 2013.